“Who knows what parts of ourselves we must consume in order to survive?” Rita Zoey Chin asks in her new memoir, Let the Tornado Come. An answer to the question seems elusive—if not impossible—but Chin is well-versed in the art of survival. As a child, her father frequently chased her through the house throwing bricks or cans, or struck her across the face with her sister’s baton when he’d had a bad day. Other times, he merely cocked back his fists but never released, relishing the moment she cowered in his shadow. She started running away from home at age 11, tired of living in constant fear. By 13, “runaway” defined her.
Those formative years were rife with drugs, stripping and trading her body for a warm bed, until Chin landed in various youth correctional facilities. Steely resolve helped lift her from the wreckage, and she pursued a better life with full force. Fast-forward 20-plus years, and things look quite different: An idyllic house in Massachusetts, writing for a living and married to a brilliant neurosurgeon, Larry. In the lull of long-sought happiness, however, a strange thing occurs: Panic. “There’s a weird way that as a runaway I had momentum. I felt like I was always moving,” Chin says. “I didn’t question it, it just became my way of life. As soon as I was in this great place and had everything figured out, I became terrified.”
But in the throes of fear, an even more unlikely thing happens: Chin discovers horses. Often afraid to breathe too deeply lest her lungs explode, suddenly riding a 1,000-pound animal becomes an oddly attractive remedy. “When I pulled over and walked into that first barn—the smell, the sound of the horses—I was drawn to it,” she remembers. “Panic is all internal, so doing a physical and actually scary thing forced me to have a different relationship with fear. Becoming more mesmerized by this large animal’s beauty and grace” than paralyzing fear of the horse “helped me come back to other internal fears and say, ‘Okay, I can do this.’ ”
After learning to ride on a few different horses, Chin meets Claret and they instantly form a special bond. However, Claret proves to be dangerously flighty. He resists his trainers’ commands, becomes increasingly skittish and is nearly impossible to ride. One trainer suggests she move on to another horse, but Chin refuses to give up on him. She knows it takes a special love to guide him through panic. Helping Claret overcome his fears, in many ways, helped her overcome her own. “I had seen horses as a child, always at a distance. They’re so majestic. They exemplify everything I’d ever want to be,” she says. “Claret made me work. It’s one of if not the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done. He has a really good heart, but I had to earn it.”
Which brings us back to her question about survival—not the act, but the life after. Once fear is over, can those parts consumed during the storm be retrieved? “I think there’s always hope for redemption,” she says, proudly noting she no longer suffers panic attacks. “The longer we live a certain way, the harder it is to go back to another way—to another part of ourselves—but I don’t ever believe that it’s gone. We don’t ever lose those parts of ourselves; we just bury them.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.